Chapter 3. The Forgotten Lands
Outskirts of Ati Harei
They were near Ati Harei, having only a mere hour tour through the surrounding forest that encircled the kingdom before they arrived. The natives called the forest, Furisre Sreuni—The Great Stone Forest.
There were no trees, all that stood were the skeletal remains of a forest that once was. Alanis wasn't told how the trees became stiffened to blackened stone, but imagined that some sort of event took place there long ago, something ancient and powerful—something awful.
As they weaved through the maze of stone trees, Alanis became enthralled by their size, each tree bested every one she'd ever seen, it was really quite amazing. It almost made her forget the eerie feeling they cast upon her.
When they finally reached Ati Harei, Alanis was shocked that their kingdom was just as large as Berthold, and just as beautiful, in its own, snowy right. The homes were built from massive stones, as well as the larger communal buildings.
Unlike Berthold, Ati Harei had no surrounding wall for protection, they were left open from attack at every angle. The only form of security they had came from the guards that watched from atop the kingdom's tower, Voelre Stuerir, said to be the highest tower ever constructed. She felt a little safer knowing someone was on the lookout, but still found their lack of security arrogant, and foolish. Most of the residents must have felt the same, for each person they passed carried a weapon of some sort at their hip.
The prince wasn't lying about the women, each one she spotted wore their hair unbound and natural, some even wore masculine crops. And unlike the golden-manes of Berthold, there was hair of every color, browns, blacks, and reds, it reminded her of her days within the settlement walls again—well, somewhat.
Back in Berthold, when Alexander had first mentioned Ati Harei and his future bride, he told her about King Stronghold's reputation for harboring settlement escapees. Alanis assumed there'd be a handful of escapees, but there were hundreds of them, it was a small wonder this place was nicknamed, The Free City.
Alanis was left behind at the royal stables while Harold, and Fulton's men met with the castle guard to prepare for the kings arrival. She was all alone except for the company of the prince, and the stable master's boy. She concluded that she'd ignore the prince's presence, he had a look about him—that ornery look that told her she'd be in trouble if she started up with him, so she kept quiet and tended to Trista.
Faris hitched his black stallion and began to undress it, throwing everything he unbuckled to the ground without so much as a second glance.
Alanis didn't see him as an avid rider, but given the state of his saddle, she could see that it was a hidden passion of his. The leather seat was worn thin and its silver buckles were strained to the point of breaking.
There was a noticeable silence in the air between them, but he didn't seem to acknowledge it. She wondered what he was thinking about, his eyes were on his working hands, but she could tell he was somewhere else, and for a moment his hardened brow softened and he genuinely looked at peace to her. It was then that the idea she should say something jumped in her head.
Now would be a good time, she thought hopefully, the best time. When he's unguarded.
She walked several feet towards him, gliding her hand along the wooden beam of the stall. He was unaware that she had moved, lost in his daydreams as he worked on the leathers.
"You were right..." Alanis spoke up, her eyes on the prince. Her posture was firm, she was prepared to keep steady should he surprise her with a nasty remark.
He glanced up from the tangled knot he was working on. "Right about what, Oraur Lahre?" His tone was friendly, as were his eyes as they scanned her from head to boot.
"Ati Harei, It's beautiful." She smiled, her hand fidgeted against the wooden beam. She wanted to gag at the corny nature of her statement, but it was already said, so she waited for his reply, hoping it wouldn't be too harsh.
He chuckled and wiped his brow with the back of his hand.
"Aye." He nodded and brought his gaze back to his horse and his fingers went back to work on the knot.
Well that was that—what next, she grumbled softly and grasped her right hand. Damn it hurt, she hadn't realized it until then. The cold and her constant grappling of the reins had taken a toll. She tugged at her aching fingers, massaging them from the knuckles to her fingertips while she thought of what to say next.
The saddle fell to the floor with a clatter then he knelt next to it and began to fold the blankets he discarded, his brow furrowed and he groaned in frustration.
Perhaps, she would wait to engage in further conversation with him. She received a small positive response from him—that was something. No, she wouldn't press her luck. She stepped back and turned towards Trista to finish unloading her things.
"Looks like you survived the south. I had a feeling that you'd either be caged, or hanged after your sister's wedding. I'm glad I was wrong." A striking brunette snuck up behind the prince, surprising both Alanis and Faris, her boot prodded his backside as she attempted to push him over playfully. "Well, mostly glad."
He jumped to his feet and flashed her a full smile, the first real smile Alanis witnessed from him, and she found it suit him.
"Natalia, I never expected to hear you cheer for my homecoming. Had I known you cared, I would have quickened our pace," he said while smoothing the wrinkles from his cloak.
"You joke, my prince, you know how much I've missed you," she retorted sweetly, her hands twined nervously at her back. They broke apart as he stepped forward, falling to her side. He stopped beside her and placed a hand on her lower back.
"Tell me about it." He pushed her, and they both strolled towards the entrance of the stables.
At first, Alanis couldn't help but watch the prince out of the corner of her eye, but his movement towards the lengthy brunette merited a closer look. She detached her packs while continuing to watch the couple, following their every move as they walked to the front of the stable. She wondered what they were talking about, it looked heavy, whatever it was.
The prince's companion looked back and caught her stare. Alanis instantly dropped her bag to her feet along with her stare, but caught the end of their intimate embrace while she walked around Trista to collect her last bag. Gods, the man was feasting hungrily at her mouth while his hands groped the arc of her breasts. The sight of their over-the-top display of affection nearly appalled her.
No wonder he was in such a foul mood all the time—he must have been hard up, Alanis thought as she pulled her eyes away from their not-so-private kiss. She unfastened the last leather strap, freeing the heavy bundle. Her hands caught it before it slipped to the ground.
Lord Fulton's whistle grabbed Alanis' attention. She turned in time to witness his dismount.
One of the stable boys hitched the captain's steed then began undressing it eagerly. Fulton stopped him while he was midway through stripping the horse's blankets.
"See to it that her mount is taken care of as well." Fulton dropped several gold coins into the boy's palm and pointed out Alanis' horse, the boys eyes lit up and he quickly pocketed the money.
"Will do, Lord Fulton!" The young lad beamed and went back to undressing his horse.
The knight captain strode to her side, he sighed as his eyes landed on the scene that was playing out in the stable-front, his glare was intense.
"Who is—" Alanis' question was cut short as Faris handed something to the woman. She couldn't make out what was given to her, only that it was small and wrapped in a leather pouch. The brunette tucked the object deep into her blouse and kissed the prince once more on his cheek.
"I wish he'd pay his whores in private, like any half-decent man would," Fulton muttered, turning his head away in disgust.
Alanis froze, not knowing how to reply to the captain's comment. Was he serious, was that woman a whore? She didn't look like one, the ones she had seen in Berthold were all painted and scantily dressed. This woman was dressed fairly modest, and looked to have some sort of intelligence—although she was associating with Faris and accepted what she now believed to be a coin from him.
But there was something about the couple's transaction that made her wonder if there was something else going on other than the obvious. They looked more like close friend and lovers, their passionate kiss was enough to set her heart into a frenzied beat.
"Pardon my language, my lady," Fulton said with a bowed head. "It wasn't my intention to steal the smile from your face, especially when you look to be in better spirits. I just don't understand his need to associate with filth like that. He knows better."
He grabbed one of her bags and slung it over his shoulder. "I'm ashamed none of my men offered to help with your belongings."
"I wasn't expecting them to," Alanis retorted as she knelt to pick up her other bag, but was beaten by the captain's plated boot, he stood on the leather straps anchoring it to the floor.
She drew in a breath as he gifted her a warm smile, how she hated the way she felt when he did that. He had an air about him that reminded her of Alexander at times, though he was more forward with his polite gestures.
"The lowborn know naught about manners. I'll be sure to school my men on the proper way—"
"No, I can handle things on my own. I'd like nothing more than to be treated like a normal person while I'm here," she said firmly. "And I would like you to speak freely around me. No more of this polite bullshit, or I'll start calling you Lord Fulton again, understand?"
He laughed. "Very well, I see your point."
"Good." She smiled feeling the tension between them slacken. Despite his overwhelming self-confidence she fancied keeping their relationship on friendly terms, and it was wise to keep a friend as influential as he was.
"Did the prince tell you where you'd be bunking?"
"He said there were two open rooms in the southern keep that we could use."
"The southern keep." Fulton laughed again, this time it wasn't genuine. "What an asshole."
"What is it?" she asked, knowing something had to be horribly wrong since he was making such a big deal about it.
"Allow me to show you."
Fulton shouldered her other bag and he led her to the southern tower. Alanis was happy it wasn't a long walk, she felt horrible that she had the captain contributing in such trivial matters. With both arms full he still managed to open the large door to the tower.
He allowed her to step in first, she grabbed the hanging lantern that clung to the wall beside the door and shuffled her feet as her eyes adjusted to the low light.
The keep was dank and drafty, as Alanis walked into the main hall an odd smell struck her. It was an old smell that reminded her of the smell of an aged book, like the smell of Strare Harei. This place must have been sealed for a long time for that smell to form, she thought while she made her way through the short corridor that led to the rooms. Fulton followed behind, wheezing from the dust that stirred as she opened the heavy door.
The room was in better shape than she envisioned, it was small and had two, high porthole windows just inches away from the ceiling. A small bed hugged the stone wall. The mattress was lopsided, sloping slightly towards the pressing wall.
"This place is unsuitable for a lady. I can't imagine why the prince would have you stay here. It's got to be one of his stupid jokes. If you'd like, I'll arrange for you to stay at one of our inns until the king returns," he droned from behind while placing her bags beside the old straw-stuffed mattress.
She ignored his proposal and continued her walk to the second door, which she suspected was a bathroom. She opened the door with lantern at hand. The room was constricted, but contained something that lifted her mood.
She knelt next to the old stone tub and tugged at the worn metal crank that stood beside it. It locked with the first twist but the old, fussy crank cooperated and twisted effortlessly after the second pull. The piping howled and burped, triggering Alanis to fall back next to the lantern with her racing heart. Her ears caught the familiar sound of rushing water-which explained the startling noises.
She pushed herself up with her palms, lifting her torso over the old tub where she watched the tub fill with water. She smiled. This place wasn't half-bad, she thought as her fingers tested the water and to her pleasure it was hot.
"This place will do," she said merrily, excited at the prospect of a hot bath, she hadn't taken one in nearly two weeks.
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Author's Notes: Thanks for reading. I can assure you that there will be action and suspense in the next chapter. This one was a little dull, but I hope you enjoyed it regardless.
So who thinks Faris' 'friend' is more than a 'working girl'? Also, let me know your thoughts on this chapter.
The Old God Language:
Ati Harei = White Ice = Snow, also the name of the northern kingdom ruled by King Stronghold.
Furisre Sreuni = Stone Forest, the petrified trees that surround the northern kingdom of Ati Harei.
Voelre Stuerir = Sky Grazer, the tallest man-made structure.
Oraur Lahre = Light Warrior, a person blessed by the goddess of light. Alanis is said to be the first blessed by her in over 200 years.
Strare Harei = White Script, the golden book of white magic. Gifted to Alanis by Julian, the hermit shaman.